Turturro’s lush tribute to Neapolitan music


Music lovers in particular will enjoy “Passione,” actor John Turturro’s tribute to the long and rich musical history of Naples, Italy. The Martha’s Vineyard Film Society will screen “Passione” on Sunday, April 1, at the Katharine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven.

While Mr. Turturro was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., both his parents come from Italy and have roots in Sicily, a former ally of Naples. Best known for his acting in “Quiz Show,” “O Brother Where Art Thou,” “The Big Lebowski” and, more recently, “The Transformers” franchise, Mr. Turturro serves as director and narrator for this impressionistic and loving survey of Neapolitan musical traditions.

In explaining his fascination with Naples, the director suggests in the British newspaper The Guardian that many of New York’s Italians come from Sicily or Naples like the members of his family. During the 19th century, the city and island were connected politically as the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.

Originator of one of America’s favorite foods, pizza, Naples is Italy’s third largest city and one of its poorest, long rife with crime and corruption. Mr. Turturro says Naples reminds him of New York City. Music, “Passione” says, has been the leavening for a much-invaded and beleaguered city, which is credited with invention of the mandolin and the romantic guitar.

Opening with a mix of song, still shots of the city, and even a snatch of flamenco dancing, the movie uses Mr. Turturro and a variety of Neapolitans to comment on how the city’s musical tradition has developed. While the emphasis is on the songs, ranging from passionate, fado-like (Portuguese) laments of lost love to Caruso opera (the singer was born in Naples), the camera creates a lush mélange of images, sometimes through evocatively sensuous dancing, other times through street scenes or archival footage.

Naples was bombed more than any other Italian city during World War II, and “Passione” captures its denizens’ suffering at the time, as well as their joy at liberation by American troops.

Mr. Turturro describes the Neapolitan “sceneggiata” tradition of building stories around a song. Then the movie treats the viewer to a vignette about a man, his lover, and his estranged wife. Although no one story in the film builds a sustained narrative thread, “Passione” presents a variety of Neapolitan musical elements.

Saxophonist James Senese never met his African-American GI father (his mother is Italian), but he became intrigued by African-American music of the Forties. M’Barka ben Taleb’s singing reflects a vital Afro-Italian strain.

Recent popular Neapolitan groups with Middle Eastern associations like Caravan Petrol perform songs about digging for oil in Naples. A folk drum sequence captures yet another genre of music, and a sequence on the city’s Feast of San Gennaro celebrations illustrates how the Neapolitans unite song, dance, and religious ritual.

As “Passione” comes to a close, Mr. Turturro sums up his view of Naples as “a city painted with sound.” It’s an apt phrase for a colorful, lively, and entertaining documentary.

“Passione,” Sunday, April 1, 7:30 pm, Katharine Cornell Theatre, Vineyard Haven. $8; $5 for MVFS members. Doors open at 7 pm. For more information, see mvfilmsociety.com.